There are many good books with animal characters – such as Watership Down, The Jungle Book, White Fang, The Adventure’s of Peter Rabbit, and Charlotte’s Web – but how many stories draw significantly from the personalities of the real animals depicted and how many just depict the animals how they have been depicted in stories before (the cunning fox, the wise owl, the angry crocodile, etc)? And how can animal stories be useful for understanding humans?
In this article I will discuss drawing from animals’ real personalities and physical attributes to create animal characters for fiction, focusing on otters, cassowaries and crocodiles. I recently observed these animals at Australia Zoo and listened to what their keepers said about them to get some insight into their personalities. Physical attributes are also important to an animal’s personality, as an animal’s choices are limited to a degree by what they are physically capable of. So why not try an original animal story based on your own approach to basing characters on the real animals?
Otters have a ferret-like body; long and furry with a flexible spine and tail, and pointy canine teeth. Unlike a ferret, they also have webbed feet and a double layer fur (the outer layer has an oily water-resistant coating while the inner layer is softer shorter fur). The webbing and water-resistant fur allow them to be just as comfortable in water as on land, while their skin stays warm and dry.
Otters have a high-metabolism, which gives them lots of energy and means they will often eat a third of their body weight in food each day. This abundance of energy makes them think and move fast, and makes them great at ambushing smaller animals or escaping from enclosed spaces. It also means they need to keep occupied with something or they’ll get into mischief.
They have around 12 types of vocal sounds, ranging from a chirp-like bark when they want food to a snarling growl when they are angry or protecting their territory.
They enjoy the company of other otters and often live in groups of up to 20 or 30, playing together, grooming one another, and laying on top of one another like kittens, even as adults. One story angle could be an otter getting separated from its group and trying to find its way back.
Cassowaries have long legs which bend the opposite way to human knees and a long neck, making them tall like emus and ostriches. Their feet are clawed, their legs strong and their beak sharp, so they can be dangerous. They move with jerky bird movements. They pick up their food in their beak, toss it back into their throat and swallow it whole.
Cassowaries only partner to mate, then part ways. Since the female is an egg layer rather than carrying her young inside her before birth, female cassowaries tend to lay 4-5 blue-green eggs and move on leaving the father to care for the eggs and the young hatchlings. This open options for stories about parenting, dating/relationships, and raising children.
Cassowaries live in tropical north Queensland and their main threats are dogs, humans, and cars. A story angle could start when dogs move into the area, turning into a horror story, battle between the dogs and cassowaries, or epic quest to find a new home.
Crocs sense vibrations well. In the wild they tend to live in murky water, making sight not their most useful tool while underwater. They also don’t have big ears, making vibrations through the ground and through the water what they react to most.
They are protective of their patch of water and will actively rid their territory of intruders.
They can launch themself very quickly out of the water, onto land or into the air, for a distance about equivalent to the length from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. This makes them good at ambushing unsuspecting prey close to the water, using the water’s murkiness for cover.
They have around 3000 pounds per square inch of jaw pressure (about 30 times the jaw pressure of a large dog). When they feel threatened, they adopt an open-mouthed threat posture. Once they have something in their jaws they will take it to deep water to drown it or roll over with the prey still in their jaws (a death roll), tearing at they prey’s flesh and knocking it off its feet. Crocs surface to swallow because they have a tongue which runs from front to back and therefore cannot block the throat to avoid water going in. They have a second set of eyelids, like sharks, which they can close to avoid their flailing prey damaging their eyes.
Their powerful tail, swept from side to side, makes them fast swimmers. However, once they are out of the water the need to drag their heavy tail along the ground makes them slow on land.
Terri from Australia Zoo assured me that crocs, despite their ferocious eating habits, are gentle lovers. So maybe a croc romance would be an interesting angle for fiction (it would provide a new twist on a dinner date).
Writing fiction about animal characters can also help in considering humans. Animals used as main characters in stories will tend to have some degree of human attributes in order to make the story understandable or more enjoyable to human readers. These human attributes can be such things as the ability to use sophisticated language (some real animals say words, but understanding grammar is a much more human attribute) and the ability to reason at the level of human ability.
By reading animal stories written to draw significantly from real animals’ personalities, a reader can ask themself questions like:
What ‘humanising’ has been done to make the story understandable or more enjoyable for human readers?
Why can/do humans do (a particular human attribute given to an animal in the story) but not (the kind of animal in the story)?
Why can/do (the kind of animal in the story) do (a particular non-human action) but not humans?
Why can/do both humans and the kind of animal in the story do the same kind of action?
By considering animal stories, we can consider humans in an ethological sense (comparing human attributes with those of other animals to better understand animal behaviour, including that of humans). For an ethological study of creating stories and paying attention to stories, see Brian Boyd‘s On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction published by Harvard University Press.
The Australian Literature Review